In the nearly two years since the 2016 election, both Facebook and Twitter have been criticized sharply for their response to disinformation campaigns conducted on their platforms on behalf of foreign groups. In the two months before the midterm elections, the two companies plan to make moves that their executives hope will prevent a rerun of those campaigns and limit foreign influence on the election.
Much of what the two companies are doing centers on the concept of verifying who is behind a given account and ensuring that the owner is authentic and not abusing the platform. Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter, came under intense scrutiny from lawmakers, media, and users soon after the last presidential election for not taking steps to find and address accounts that were spreading disinformation in the months before the election. On Wednesday, executives from both companies appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to discuss how they responded to those campaigns, what they learned from the experience, and what steps they’re taking to improve detection and removal of troll accounts and others linked to disinformation campaigns.
The stakes are high for both Facebook and Twitter. Bot armies and trolls have been prolific on both platforms for many years, but their use in influence campaigns designed to spread disinformation became a serious problem in 2016. Congress has held a number of hearings in the last year to discuss the problem, and the anger from users of the two platforms has been constant and visible, something that company executives are well aware of.
“We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act. That’s on us,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said in Wednesday’s hearing.
“The threat we face isn’t new. America has always confronted attacks determined, well-funded opponents. What is new is the tactics they’re using.”
One of the changes Facebook is making is to force organizations that have large audiences to go through an authentication process to ensure that the organization is legitimate. Sandberg didn’t specify how that process will work and she stressed that it’s not meant to be a panacea against disinformation or influence operations.
“It won’t stop everything, but it will make it a lot harder. We’re more determined than our opponents and we will keep fighting,” she said. “As we learn, so do our adversaries. We have to keep getting smarter.”
“We were too slow to spot this and too slow to act. That’s on us."
Like Facebook, Twitter conducted an internal review of its processes in the aftermath of the election and found that while the amount of Russian-linked activity on the platform wasn’t enormous, some changes needed to be made. The company has been developing detection tools designed to identify the use of malicious automation on the platform.
“Twitter prioritizes identifying suspicious account activity, such as exceptionally high-volume Tweeting with the same hashtag or mentioning the same @handle without a reply from the account being addressed, and requires an individual using the platform to confirm control,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in his prepared testimony.
“Twitter has also increased its use of challenges intended to catch automated accounts, such as reCAPTCHAs, that require users to identify portions of an image or type in words displayed on screen, and password reset requests that protect potentially compromised accounts. Twitter is also in the process of implementing mandatory email or cell phone verification for all new accounts.”
While much of the hearing focused on what happened in 2016 and how the companies responded to it, some of the senators were concerned with how Facebook and Twitter are protecting the vast stores of user data they control. That data could be invaluable to an organization planning an influence operation or disinformation campaign.
“The prospect of that data being shared with shady businesses is a massive privacy and national security concern. Personal data is now the weapon of choice for political influence campaigns and we must not make it easier for our adversaries to seize them and use them against us,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said.